Government, Media, and the Pandemic: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By Lucy Wu
Volume 1 Issue 5
February 12, 2021
Image provided by InternetFreedom.org
While the pandemic has taken more than 450,000 American lives, infected over 100 million people globally, and disrupted normalcy across the world, the resulting “infodemic” has infected countless swaths of people everywhere. Ranging from the idea that 5G networks cause COVID to drinking Clorox as a cure (please do not do that), misinformation was already an issue, but was only exacerbated by media during the pandemic. Since we live in a digital age where information is so immediately obtained from online sources, an entire population’s response to the pandemic can largely be shaped by which media they consume on a daily basis.
Because some governments have laws and acts to regulate their media, some countries handled the dissemination of information differently during the pandemic: some for the better, and some for the far worse. The real question is, how did they handle it, and what were the outcomes?
To answer this question, I primarily investigated the pandemic media response by two of our favorite global rivals: The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. We will also include countries like Vietnam and New Zealand in our discussion.
The Good: What Went Right (to some extent)
Let’s start with some good news to lift spirits in troubling times.
(Some) Countries Overcome COVID
While the spread of COVID officially began in China, it quickly moved to countries such as Vietnam, Japan, the US, and many others by January of 2020. But wait: one of these is not like the others. You will notice many Asian countries were hit first with COVID outbreaks but managed to overcome the first wave and keep infection rates low, especially when compared to the U.S. How did they do it? It’s important to note that Asian countries already had experience dealing with infectious disease, namely the SARS outbreak in 2003. Culturally, Asian countries also grew accustomed to wearing masks, pandemic or not, and value “collective well-being over individual liberty,” a foil to values of the U.S. especially. According to the Lowry Research Group, Asian countries also were “prioritizing health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, […] and mandating behavior change.” Delving deeper into “excellent public communications,” we can see that “communication from public health officials and political leadership tended to be clear and consistent, reducing confusion and bolstering trust,” according to Shenglan Tang of the Duke Global Health Institute. We can also attribute this unity in action to the regulation of mass media: both China and Vietnam have their media regulated by the government; they rank within the five countries with the lowest Freedom of Press Index Score. All these traits combined contributed greatly to Asian countries having a strong advantage in dealing with a pandemic.
Even with our mishaps, we still managed to procure multiple viable vaccines that are saving lives as we speak. For some countries who swiftly contained the virus (I’m looking at you, New Zealand), this was still a positive step even though they had things under control. And for the other countries that weren’t as fortunate: even when news outlets lied, people didn’t listen, and leadership failed us, the researchers were there to save the day. That in of itself deserves a round of applause and a sigh of (momentary) relief.
The Bad: What We (maybe) Could Have Changed
Let’s face it. We probably could have handled this whole event a lot better than we did.
The Blame Game
This one is fun. In case you weren’t aware, the U.S (but mainly former President Trump) blamed China, and China blamed the US for the initial spread of the virus. Back and forth it went while the rest of the world watched in horror, but not shock. According to the World Health Organization, the virus was first identified in the Wuhan province of China. The specific origin is not yet known, but one would think that this fact would still eliminate much of the controversy surrounding the eternal question of “who started it, and who’s to blame?” Instead, conspiracy theories about the Chinese colluding to make COVID a bioweapon and wreak havoc on the Western world took form, and simultaneously, the Chinese used their vice grip on social media to say that in fact, the Chinese had won against the poor Westerners who were now crumbling under the virus. Interestingly, because former President Trump infamously referred to the virus as the “China Virus,” Chinese media began taunting back, calling it the “America Virus.”
Now, maybe you’re someone who opens the news every 5 minutes, fact-checks authors on every article you read, and wouldn’t be fooled by the COVID myths. But imagine you’re not that person. Because of sensationalized titles, misleading charts, and biased sources, U.S media is a free but unregulated mess. To an outsider it’s pure confusion and chaos. To us, it’s just the norm of U.S politics and media. In an age where deep fakes are getting more realistic by the second and where “fake news” can forcibly convince others, it can be difficult to sift through the misinformation if you don’t know what to look for. Instead, it’s easier than ever to be sucked into the vortex of believing everything you read and trusting misguided sources. As a result, it’s clear that some groups in the U.S were extremely afflicted by poor guidance and a lack of accurate evidence. Alarmingly, many began protesting wearing masks and generally disregarding science and health officials, sending the U.S into a spiral of seemingly never-ending COVID cases. Too much trust in dishonest sources combined with a lack of confidence in mass media became two of America’s greatest pitfalls during the pandemic.
There’s more. Social media only makes things worse. Because you can choose whom to follow and what media you consume, users build an “echo chamber,” whether they realize it or not. Social media algorithms are designed to give you the content that will keep you on their platform, so by blocking out opinions and values that don’t align with yours, they can keep you blind to the real dangers - like maybe a pandemic. Increasingly, there is a lack of discussion and thought which has been replaced by blaming and arguing instead, deciding who is wrong without consideration for other viewpoints. What does this mean during a global health crisis? The lack of a clear directive and coordination between government and health bodies created a further chasm in the US response to the pandemic, since people lacked confidence and trust in mass media to provide them with accurate information. Instead, people established their own groups on Facebook, Reddit, and other platforms, to confirm their own viewpoints on how to address the pandemic (a.k.a. confirmation bias) and give “advice” to others. Because the U.S places an emphasis on personal liberties, and in this case at the expense of the population’s health, the spread of misinformation across the Internet was rampant like a wildfire in brush – and in fact there was a time when Australian bushfires were our biggest problem.
The Ugly: What Was Unfixable (and at the point of no return)
Brace yourself. This is not pretty.
450,000 Deaths and Counting...
We’ve almost become desensitized to that number now. We knew the situation was bad, but how did it get that much worse? Thankfully, at the time of writing, we seem to be on the mend. To start, former President Trump issued a series of tweets that not only contradicted safety information from global health officials, but also admonished and downplayed the virus. In the last few days of his term, Facebook and Twitter had (temporarily) banned Trump from accessing both of his media accounts in an attempt to prevent the spread of further misinformation and, incidentally, violence. Compared with the rest of the world, U.S politics has also become increasingly polarized, with sensationalized headlines covering divisions between liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, who’s right and who’s wrong, on and on it goes. In contrast to the Asian countries discussed above, because the U.S was disjunct and uncoordinated in its communication between government and people, a lack of clear instruction hindered the actual response to the pandemic. From there, people chose which set of directions they wanted to follow: either those given by the President, or those given by health officials. This is when the U.S shot itself in the foot: by preserving personal freedoms of speech to a point where people actively tried to harm others, misinformation ran wild, people were infected, and lives were reduced to numbers on a graph. When lives are endangered, politics should have no place in a global pandemic.
Circling back to the onset of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital, was largely credited for being the first person to alert others about a SARS-like virus circulating through patients. He warned friends, family members, and colleagues via the Chinese regulated platform WeChat, but fortunately yet unfortunately, his private chatroom messages were leaked to the Chinese Internet where it was only a matter of time before officials found it. As typical of the Chinese Government, they censored and silenced him, forcing him to sign a letter of admonition from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau for spreading “untrue statements about seven confirmed SARS cases.” Li later passed away on February 7th, 2020, after contracting the virus from a patient. Needless to say, many lives, tears, and moments could have been saved had the Chinese health officials taken the claims of any of the 8 whistleblowers seriously, instead of tightening their control over freedom of speech. Chinese media regulation is a double-edged sword: on one hand they efficiently and clearly disseminated important directives to their people while censoring the lies and misinformation, which contained the spread of COVID and saved lives. On the other hand, protests arose for the millionth time to address the lack of personal freedom of speech, which would have prevented health officials from opening Pandora’s Box in the first place.
The Aftermath: Thoughts and Reflections
That was a lot to unpack. While we’ve created a vaccine to address the raging virus, government regulation of media still needs a solution: how much do we regulate media to protect the masses, while still preserving a reasonable level of freedom of speech? While we wait for a response, we should aim to practice media literacy at school, the workplace, and at home. In fact, just as we wear masks and wash our hands, we should train ourselves to spot misinformation, because staying aware is the best way to fight the urge to blindly trust whatever we hear and read.
Clearly, this is an urgent issue that requires immediate government attent- what’s that? Oh right: we have mental health to take care of and people to vaccinate, all on top of managing an ongoing pandemic. Right. Guess we’ll have to put this on our list for later. See you all on the other side when this is over, and if it doesn’t end, you can find me in New Zealand.
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